KINGSPAN STADIUM, Belfast — Adverts for the Women’s Rugby World Cup will not have come any bigger, brasher or louder than on Saturday night.
New Zealand have got their hands on the trophy for a fifth time following a game that ebbed from a dominant England first half, to a rampant Black Ferns showing in the second 40.
In the end, New Zealand proved just too strong for a Red Roses squad that had already gone to the well during their semifinal win over France.
But there is a sense, and excuse the hyperbole, that women’s 15-a-side rugby is the biggest winner following an enthralling denouement to a wonderful tournament.
Saturday felt like a defining moment for the longer form of the women’s game in many ways. New Zealand’s top brass are meeting to discuss their next steps, while England’s shift of focus to Sevens following this tournament has been well documented.
World Rugby are keen for the game to grow in all formats and knew that a close final was imperative. What they got was a three-match programme that delivered thrills, spills and keenly contested rugby as France, the United States, Ireland and Wales more than played the part of warm-up acts.
The quality of rugby on show in those earlier games cannot be understated, yet it was the main event that truly delivered.
For 40 minutes there was only one team in it. England dominated the Black Ferns up front and stretched their defence with ball in hand. Katy McLean’s precise kicking and Emily Scarratt’s elusive running kept New Zealand penned in their own half.
Emily Scarratt of England battles with Kelly Brazier. David Rogers/Getty Images
It looked as though England would canter towards a second successive World Cup title. The Red Roses’ line speed in defence was suffocating the Black Ferns, who looked rattled.
But while the New Zealand lineout misfired in the opening half, and their scrum creaked, they managed to keep themselves in the contest like a wily old pro.
England turned around at half time buoyant, and with a deserved seven-point lead gifted to them by two tries. But the Black Ferns had been clinical, bookending the half with two scores of their own.
England’s defence had marshalled New Zealand’s attacking threats — Portia Woodman, Renee Wickliffe and Selica Winiata — for 95 percent of the opening period. But it was the identity of the Black Ferns’ second try that proved apocryphal.
Toka Natua it was who pulled New Zealand back into the contest with a sniping score, and as the second half got underway it was the prop who took full advantage of an improved display from the Black Ferns pack.
Natua ended the final as a deserved player of the match, and the significance of that should not be lost. Fifteens is a format that finds room for all players, large or small, and there could be no greater stage on which for a front row to underline her importance.
For all the speedsters hooked by Woodman or Scarratt during this tournament, on Sunday, hopefully, there will be a few Natua’s picking up a rugby ball in their back garden.
No one who watched Saturday’s final could have been left with any feeling other than one of optimism of what the future — and the 2021 World Cup — holds.
For the losing finalists, it remains to be seen what happens for many of these players, but they could not have done any more to secure their futures or the standing of the women’s game.
As England and New Zealand both build towards the next World Cup hopefully they will be boosted by youngsters who were turned onto the sport by Scarratt, Woodman — and of course, Natua.
www.espn.co.uk – RUGBY